My thoughts on how humans learn are rooted in my understanding of the human brain, if one defines learning as taking in new ideas or knowledge, maintaining the idea or knowledge, being able to connect it to other ideas or knowledge in a useful or creative way, and being able to apply it in appropriate contexts. Two principles guide me as I spend my days teaching children and adults, learn. First, nothing can get into our brains unless it comes through one or more of our five senses. Second, nothing can "stick" in our brains unless it can connect to something that is already there. From those two ideas, for me, everything flows.
Our brains have neurons,which are specialized nerve cells. Even before we are born, we have neurons. Through means that are far too complex for me to explain here, even if I were competent to do so properly, these neurons interact with one another, through the transmission of chemicals. Thus, there are paths between and among neurons, and all of this is the "wiring" of our brains. As stimuli come into our brains, through our five senses, pathways may be strengthened, or new pathways made, new connections between the neurons. This wonderful system is all that holds our learning, with the exception, perhaps, of what we call "muscle memory," which involves learning a physical activity.
Now, when things come into our brains through the five senses, truly, the only way they can stay there and be of use is if they can be connected to what is already there. It is like you learn some wonderful new fact that has nothing to do with anything in your life. If you have no "file" to put it in, you are not likely to retain it, much less do something with it years later. And even if you do retain it, you are probably not going to have a good means of retrieving it. Even the people on Jeopardy, who seems to know so much miscellaneous "stuff," have strategies to retain and retrieve all of this with some way of connecting with what they already know.
So, the idea, when people learn, is to always try to connect to what is already in their brains. The child who has never seen a zebra may very well have seen a horse. So the child has a kind of file to put this new idea in, a way of connecting to what is already there. Even if the child has never seen a horse, the child might have seen another kind of mammal. We can always find a way to make a connection. The information goes in, and it connects with what is already in there. If a child has two ways of making a connection to what is already there, that is even better. The same is true for the adult learner. New connections can always be made. The brain has what we call "plasticity."
Now, there are some kinds of knowledge that we learn that we refer to as rote learning. This is usually the kind of knowledge that we need to retrieve in order to do a higher order kind of thinking, for example, knowing multiplication tables to do algebra easily. Rote learning occurs when the paths between neurons are used over and over again through repetitive speaking, writing, reading, or listening, getting things in through the senses.
Although the theory that we are are either visual, audio, or kinesthetic learners has been largely discounted, it does not really matter because the more of your senses you use to get things into your brain, the more paths and connections you create.
I could probably write about this for another hour, but I am out of space! :)